Go girl, and go further

Contestants from SBS K-pop Star Audition cover SNSD’s “The Boys,” Glee-style:

Ahhh, so much potential, so much potential.

I never planned on paying much attention to K-pop Star Audition because it felt like it was just going to be a Korean version of The X Factor, and Korea’s never done a good job of adopting foreign show formats and remaking them into their own shows. But what strikes me as unusual about Star Audition is the candidness of the judges, and the fact that YG, JYP and BoA are sitting in the judges’ seats makes things all the more interesting. For one, I’m still kind of baffled that the man who has made the harshest criticisms on this show is the same man who routinely allows Sohee to be anywhere near a mic. But then again, given that the premise of the show is focused primarily on the vocal abilities of the contestants, it’s somewhat refreshing to know that these big-time producers maintain very high standards — that is, when they’re taken out of the superfluidity of commercial K-pop.

The four girls in this group — Park Ji-min, Lee Seung-ju, Lee Jung-mi, Michelle Lee — have extraordinary solo voices and are incredibly talented. By that logic, this performance should’ve been phenomenal. And in many ways, it was. Their solo lines at the beginning and during the chorus were great. But this was to be expected; their individual auditions were just as impressive. And that’s exactly it: this performance seemed like a four-person solo performance, with each person doing her thang when it was her part but reverting to being one of three back-up singers whenever it wasn’t — and doing a relatively bad job back-up singing, to boot.

The opening harmonies were very rough, but the fact that these were the only harmonies in the entire song proved to be much more disappointing. The ending should’ve been easy to arrange, but it was messily executed and had poor blend. And most importantly, there was so, so much potential for some sick chord progressions during the chorus, so much space for everything to just mesh. I was half-expecting for their performance to be reminiscent of a beefed-up “Mama Who Bore Me” from Spring Awakening. But instead of rich harmonies, we got talk-rapping a la SNSD.

There’s not a doubt in my mind that these girls are incredible singers, and I would actually be elated if they decided to cover “Mama Who Bore Me” one day because I know they would be able to pull it off. But these girls aren’t suffering from a lack of talent as much as they’re suffering from a lack of creative musicianship. As seen in the behind the scenes footage before the actual performance, the contestants put together this performance themselves. This was their chance to show their abilities not just as singers, but as musicians. But what they put on the stage didn’t prove that. The performance proved that these four girls are excellent solo singers, but it said nothing about their abilities as musicians with any sense of creativity.

But given that this show’s name is called K-pop Audition Star, I suppose it’s to be expected. One of the biggest criticisms of pop idols is that they don’t write their own music, but there’s really nothing wrong with that. The pop music industry is more an interlocked system of producers, designers, composers, and artists, rather than a thinly knit web of independent artists. A singer with a good voice should be able to showcase that talent, regardless of her ability to write and produce her own music. But at the same time, a singer who sings well but has no real musical creativity or innovation also runs the risk of shortchanging her own talent.

I was really disappointed by this performance, and particularly by the judges’ unadulterated enthrallment of it because it demonstrated exactly how compartmentalized the roles of K-pop media production actually are. There was so much untapped potential in this performance, but it seemed as if the judges and audience were satisfied by the girls’ solo ability alone. Because they’re singers, right? If they sing well, then that’s what’s worthy of applause.

Buuuuuuut…it never hurts to ask for more.

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